Propensity of authors to describe clothes every character wears

What accounts for the propensity of some authors to describe the clothing every character wears, sometimes every time they appear?

If they were writing short stories for magazines and getting paid by the word, I could understand it, but in novels?

I am not talking about a character wearing a deep sea diving suit, or a matador costume or something unusual if it were germane to the plot, but to describe the shirt, pants, shoes or hat each time, baffles, bothers, bewilders and bores me. It pisses me off too. :smiley:

Generally, just because they personally find clothes fascinating, I think. If someone who finds what people wear to be important writes a book, they’ll likely write a lot about clothes. Just as if they find cars fascinating, they’ll manage to work in a description of people’s cars, or if they find guns fascinating, you’ll see a lot about people’s guns.

It can say a lot about a character or it can be totally extraneous. You know what’s weird? Jane Austen never talks about clothes, but you get the odd impression that she does. Arthur Conan Doyle, on the other hand, writes kind of like a modern historical fiction author - he puts in all these details that it seems odd that an actual contemporary person would add, but there it is.

The first author that pops into my head is Robert Parker. He invariably describes what people are wearing. I don’t find it annoying, rather, I find that it helps get a handle on the character, even if it’s just some one-paragraph character who will never appear again. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t merely report like some gossip columnist–it somehow always seems relevant to the character, what they’re wearing.

And he doesn’t go into boring details, just kinda hits the high spots.

Can the OP give us some specific examples of authors who do it in an irritating way, that prompted the thread?

Ha, you caught me. Difficult to recall now, but it is not all that uncommon. Obviously, I am referring to descriptions that have no bearing whatsoever to the plot nor to the personality of the character. The authors must just be “clothes-ies” or possibly haberdashers on the side.

The only one that comes to mind is the recently read Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson. What is even more annoying in this book is that constantly, throughout the book, several characters hearing music have to identify it and the artist, and that they have the CD. Again, never having any relevancy to the plot, except one time when a cellphone ringtone was important. Fortunately, unlike the clothes descritions, this is a bit unusual.

Here’s an excerpt from one of Robert Jordan’s WOT books…this is typical of the first time any character is introduced:

“Egeanin was scowling, her eyes like blue daggers, but not for him. At least, he thought not. She was tall and lean, with a hard face that was pale skinned despite a life at sea. Her green dress was bright enough for a Tinker, or close to it, and embroidered with a mass of tiny yellow and white blossoms on the high neck and down the sleeves. A flowered scarf tied tightly under her chin held a long black wig on her head, spilling halfway down her back and over her shoulders. She hated the scarf and the dress, which did not quite fit, but her hands checked every other minute to make sure the wig was straight. That concerned her more than her clothes, though concern was not nearly a strong enough word.”

She later huffs, snorts, and crosses her arms.

Duck Duck Goose, try reading The Wheel Of Time. I gave up mid-way through the first book because it seemed as though 10 pages of out the first 40 were descriptions of what the characters were all wearing.

I think I do know what prompts it - a lot of readers expect it! When I took a fiction writing class in college, I was startled when several of my classmates complained bitterly every time someone neglected to include a lengthy description of what characters looked like and what they were wearing. It stuck me as bizarre that they were upset that they weren’t told what people looked like - only later on did I figure out that there are a lot of people who actually picture what they read. I guess if reading puts visuals into your head, knowing what people look like is handy. I don’t picture anything in my head while reading, so I don’t care what authors say their characters look like in the least.

Though I never took any creative writing classes, I’ve always suspected that, like adjectives, the less character description a piece of writing contains, the better it’s likely to be.

Jane Austen is a great example. Once or twice she’ll say that a character is “tall” or “fair” or “dark”, but otherwise, the characters themselves are what matters. I think it’s part of what makes her so timeless and fresh, two hundred years later.

And when she does say that a character is tall or fair or dark, it’s usually to set you up for the way other characters are going to react to them–generally catty women.

I’m no Jane Austen, but I can tell you that although I ‘see’ my characters fully formed in physique, I try not to get too detailed with the description. I want someone who is a person of colour, who is Asian, or who is European, to fill in the rest with what they imagine the character to be. I am trying for broad, but distinctive strokes, filled out by the reader. Not saying I achieve this, mind you.

However, whether your character is Asian, African, or Eropean, if they are wearing a conservative business suit or a ripped pair of jeans–that says something about who they are .

Personally I think clothing description is a kind of novel boilerplate – it’s filler to stretch a plot idea from short story to novel length. Same with descriptions of the local countryside, building exteriors and interior layout, furnishings, etc.

Sometimes the descriptions are to firmly place the story in a historical setting, not to mention show off how deeply the writer researched the time period. But mostly I think, it’s just to run the clock.

Depends a bit on the type of novel.

In SF or Fantasy, it’s often part of building the world, like describing technology, weapons, modes of travel, etc, that differ from right now.

In contemporary romance and chick lit, it’s more just because chicks dig that sort of thing. It’s a broad generalization, obviously, but more women are interested in clothing, and women seem to have a greater sense that clothing can tell you a lot about the character, so it’s quite common in writing marketed at women.

For historical romance, it’s a mix of the two, I think. It both helps set the historical tenor, as well as just appealing to women who go in for that.

In some cases, though, it’s just part and parcel with the character – Lawrence Sanders, for example always describes McNally’s clothing in detail, because the character is meant to be a bit of a dandy. And he’s the type to notice clothing in others, too, so those details come out, as well.

Just to throw a navel-gazing answer out, I’d say it depends on the writer and how they view the story. If you’re writing a plot-driven story, the descriptions don’t matter so much, what matters is what happens. If you’re writing a character-driven story, the descriptions help ground the characters and bring them a little more to life.

Used well, it can also be a way of bringing out some of the characteristics of a character, to overuse a word. Like, it might be germane to point out that a certain guy’s clothing is rumpled and unwashed, so it’s more of a surprise later when he turns out to be a wealthy CEO. Or something like that, anyway.

Laurell K Hamilton does it with her Anita Blake character.

What she does though that is even worse is she uses exactly the same phrases in different books. Basically, it’s like she opened up word and used copy/paste and that was her new book.


It’s better than one book (forgot the title) where the guy’s sleeping in bed, naked, gets a phone call and rushes out of his house. I guess we can assume he threw on some clothes, but the author didn’t mention it.


Robinson Crusoe famously strips to swim out to his wrecked ship, and upon arriving, stuffs his pockets with supplies.

Where in relation to her breasts are the arms crossed? Is it beneath them? I bet it’s beneath them.

I really would like to know how long the WoT series would be if you took out every reference to clothing, arms-beneath-breasts-crossing and motherf***ing braid-tugging out of them. I reckon it’d be a pamphlet.

He needs to include the detail so it doesn’t stand out like dog’s testicles when he mentions The Clues.

If you never mention anything about the appearance of characters, but then suddenly out of the blue say that someone’s trouser cuffs were muddy, it’s going to be a bit obvious that this is a plot point.

I’ve seen this in several Peter Robinson novels. You’re continually treated to an exposition of the musical taste of the lead detective. It’s actually more interesting than a lot of the boilerplate that fills up his novels in between the infrequent spurts of action.

John McDonald didn’t say too much about clothing in his Travis McGee novels, except in the case of certain female characters. I remember one sexpot in Pale Gray For Guilt who was described as precariously balancing on the line between high fashion and comedy. :smiley:

What I find more annoying than clothes descriptions in novels (particularly crime fiction) are long lunch interludes in which both food and boring character trivia get a workout. This happens a lot in novels written by some female authors, especially the alphabet person (“C Is For Crepes”, “G Is For Greek Salad” etc.).

Hehe, I came in here just to mention that. I’m also fascinated by her extremely bad taste in clothes - the vampiric love interest always seems to be wearing something straight out of an 80’s fashion shoot featuring Fabio.

Doyle *was *primarily a historical fiction author. His Sherlock Holmes stories were only a part of his output.